Friday, March 8, 2013

Famous Speech Friday: Queen Elizabeth I to the troops at Tilbury

This speech is beloved of speechwriters and lovers of rhetoric. But are we in love with the real thing? Reportedly given by Queen Elizabeth I to British troops stationed at Tilbury in 1588 as they awaited an invasion of the Spanish Armada, it's brief yet powerful, a speech designed for the field.

For me, this speech illustrates many of the issues I face in bringing forward famous speeches by women. Even though it was given by a monarch at the peak of her powers -- in 1588, Elizabeth was 55 years old -- there's not a definitive version from which to work. Three versions are available, with the one written down closest to the date of the event in verse, and the other prose versions in letters recalling the event decades later. You might look at that as an abundance, a reflection of Elizabeth's rank, but the lack of a definitive record is what keeps so many women's speeches from being quoted, analyzed and used as models.

In this speech, as in so many things, Elizabeth was forging an unusual path for a woman. And the speech is best known for the lines that make that unusual path clear:
I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too, and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realm; to which rather than any dishonour shall grow by me, I myself will take up arms, I myself will be your general, judge, and rewarder of every one of your virtues in the field.
It happened hundreds of years ago and much has changed. So what can you learn and use from this famous speech?
  • It always pays to rally the troops: Too many leaders forget that troops thrive on rallying remarks from the leader. In this case, Elizabeth's "I myself will take up arms" says "I'm with you" in real terms. Have you done that with your "troops" lately?
  • An apology is still the foot in the door that lets women speak boldly: "I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman" may be the most eloquent apology from a woman daring to speak up and tell a group of men what to do. It's also a smart speaker tactic: Tackling the obvious thought on the minds of the audience, and disproving it. Today, we often decry women for apologizing too much, even though research shows the genders differ in what they consider needs an apology. Yet verbal apology is still the path-smoother for women who want to speak up in the workplace, where data show that both men and women view women negatively when they voice their thoughts. Men and women have long used apologies ("I'm sorry, were you in this seat?") as a way to signal good intent, not necessarily self-blame. "Permit me to point out...." and "allow me to say..." are longstanding phrases for introducing difficult, even stinging commentary, and no one listening really thinks the speaker is begging for permission. From that perspective, apologizing first and talking next works--and now you can start thinking of it as a royal foot-in-the-door.
  • For an authentic speaker, the most powerful pronoun is the vertical one: In the version I work from here, that famous royal "we" is deployed just once, making formal a promise of payment for the troops' service. Otherwise, she speaks for herself with "I" statements, which are at once stronger, more personal, and more authentic. No one can speak for you but yourself, and an "I" statement is a strong way to do that, even today.
Even if we don't know whether these are her words, Elizabeth I was a truly eloquent woman. In the debates over whether someone else might have written Shakespeare's works, analysis showed that only the writings of this queen came close to his, and even she was eventually ruled out.

You can read the text of the speech here, and read about the different versions here. And as befits a speech with many interpretations, here's a film version that imagines how it might have happened, with an emphasis on the imagination part:

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